In the past few years, drones have risen from being merely fun and novel consumer toys to earning more serious regard—as well as tangible deployment—in commercial applications. While almost 3 million drones were sold last year into a variety of uses, primarily consumer, by 2020 over 10 million of these unmanned devices will be shipped, with commercial applications starting to become their main purpose by then. But for the future of drones to successfully transition to a wider range of truly commercial uses, comprehensive regulatory changes need to occur.
Current regulation related to the use of drones is patchy at best, and regulators are constantly playing catch-up with admittedly difficult questions and issues surrounding drone use and need. And in most countries there is no history of unmanned vehicles, so regulations have developed as a reaction to technological change rather than as a means to enable an industry need.
Guidelines also differ for consumer vs. commercial drones. Consumer drones, for the most part, sit broadly outside of regulations—or are treated as model airplanes—as long as stipulations are in place specifying their use within particular parameters, typically determined by a flight ceiling and by restrictions on flights over sensitive areas or locales close to people, vehicles, and buildings.
Commercial applications for drones, on the other hand, are generally only allowed by specific exemption that is granted by the aviation regulator for each country. This, however, has the unintended consequence of creating a bottleneck for foreseeable new commercial drone uses and needs. In fact, an open and valid question can be raised about whether the civic aviation regulators are truly in the best position to deal with the nuances and complexities of what are really very different uses for drones. In the United States over 5,000 exceptions have been granted for drone commercial applications with a backlog remaining in excess of 7,000. In France around 2,500 commercial approvals have been granted, with a further 2,000 in the United Kingdom. Regulations mooted have ranged from requiring a full pilot’s license to fly a drone commercially, down to blanket approvals for any commercial use for a nominal fee.
The types of concerns commonly raised for drone use are many and varied. For instance, drones intended to photograph houses for real estate sales may cause the most sensitivity to privacy, while drones used for construction may involve health and safety concerns. Meanwhile, drones employed for the delivery of goods or products entail security worries, whereas high-altitude environmental surveying might pose more of a civic aviation issue. So far, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States has approved commercial drones primarily for photography and video (weddings and events being the main use), inspection, and surveying. More specialist uses, such as for viewing real estate, search and rescue, and agriculture, are much less requested and used.
Countries are also struggling to develop an effective and fit-for-purpose method to handle the myriad requests coming in for commercial drone use. An interesting lesson may come from Japan, which is unusual in that the country has long-term regulations regarding drone use in agriculture for crop spraying. These licenses are administered by Japan's Agriculture Aviation Authority instead of the more general-purpose Civil Aviation Bureau, greatly streamlining the process.
Above all, a substantial learning curve is involved before we see the commercial use of drones reaches full potential and before effective regulation can take hold in a complex environment. The benefits of drones could be far reaching, allowing for a wide range of menial tasks to be effectively automated—from security patrols to urban delivery, from environmental surveying to carrying materials on construction sites. But it will be complex to regulate effectively across all the different needs and uses possible for such devices, and the temptation for authorities may be to resort to very reactive behavior, or to stifle innovation.
True, the appropriate supervision and oversight of drones is important, especially in light of a series of high-profile accidents and near misses at airports, government buildings, and sports events. Yet it is just as critical for governments to make decisions that will not overly favor corporate interests or unduly give rein to consumer fears that turn out to be unfounded. Autonomous flying vehicles are almost certainly part of our future, but the decisions of governments now will determine how rapidly we get to that future.
Posted on 3 May 2016